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Recollections of William Stewart Irvine

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  • Recollections of William Stewart Irvine


    by E. Molyneux (reprinted with additions from Life and Work)

    Edinburgh: David Douglas 1896

    Printed by T & A Constable, Printers to Her Majesty, at the Edinburgh University Press

    IN the autumn of 1893 there was an October day which will long be remembered in Pitlochry, for into that day both summer and autumn seemed to have poured their fullest splendour, so that the land was lit up as if from some hidden source of glory. The woods had on their richest colouring - one might almost say there was a sunset glow in every tree, - and the air was soft and sunladen.

    This was the day of Dr. Irvine's funeral, and even as it was the perfection and consummation of a matchless summer, so in the long procession that wound along the vale and up the hill to Moulin churchyard, there were representatives of all that was noblest and most characteristic in the district where his beneficent life was lived. The Duke of Atholl with his two sons and his Highlanders walked there, followed by friends of every class and station of life, from far and near. The coffin, wrapped in a plaid, was reverently carried by true mourners, while the pipes tailed out the strains of regret and hope-' Lochaber no More,' and ‘The Land o' the Leal.'

    Thus was the last outward honour paid to William Stewart Irvine, and the place that knew him so long knows him now no more; but as the memory of the just is blessed,' so the tradition of his noble life, in all its simplicity and reality, will go down the stream of time beyond our seeing or hearing. It is good to recall him now as he was, to brace ourselves for the way that remains by the thought of his true and manful spirit, which endured to the end and won the crown of a faithful life.

    But to speak of him with full knowledge and power should be the work of others; the present recollections are only, as it were, a wreath laid on his grave in the name of friendship and gratitude.

    In former days, no one could be long in the Vale of Athole without hearing the name of Dr. Irvine as a household word; and thus it was that some time before actually meeting him I seemed to know the ‘old Doctor,' as he was affectionately called. The Doctor's word was, in those days, as a law to the country people, his advice authoritative, his voucher a complete character in itself. ‘The Doctor knows me well,' was often the one and only testimonial thought necessary on either side. And well might it be so, for fifty years of family histories came within his own personal experience, and behind them lay a great store of inherited knowledge and tradition. He stood, as it were, at the parting of the ways between the old clannish life of the Highlands, full of individuality and local colouring, of wild poetry and loyal, long-cherished devotions, and the new order of things advancing slowly, steadily, like a rising flood that submerges old landmarks, obliterates old traces, and levels old barriers, until those who knew the land from childhood would wander as strangers through it. So is the old order passing away, year by year, in the Highlands, though the change may be stayed here and there by special efforts or conditions. But in Dr. Irvine's keen, retentive memory one could read as in a mirror the life of days gone by for ever, could trace the origin and growth of lingering customs, the meaning of certain characteristics in fact, could share in hopes and fears that are now no more than survivals, could, as has been well said, ‘behold the series of the generations' and ‘weigh with surprise the momentous and nugatory gift of life.' Yes; and he himself, was he not the embodiment of much that is found nowhere but in these Highlands? Was he not the life of their life, in the best sense?

    Shrewd, sagacious, hardy and enduring, faithful and laborious, with a fire of enthusiasm, a vein of unconscious poetry that ran glancing through all his talk, and made every word of it interesting. Never have I heard from him a commonplace or colourless remark; whatever might be the subject, it suggested to his mind an experience, an anecdote, an illustration touched with humour and pathos, and, best of all, drawn from life. No second-hand talk, no borrowed opinions, no thought of effect, but just the outpouring of a sagacious, sympathetic mind, stored with facts of human life. The many distinguished men he had known, either professionally or otherwise, were brought before you by a few graphic touches, some salient trait given that told more than a page of generalities, and there was the man before you whom Dr. Irvine had known and whom you henceforth knew. It is wonderful to see how people and events live on in such a mind as his.

    But what avails description of a real character like Dr. Irvine? How can I show the man him-self who was the soul of all he said? No more than I can picture for others the rugged, benevolent face, strong, square-browed, bearing the impress of thought and power; the deep-set grey eyes that could gleam with humour and glow with enthusiasm; the rare, genial, sympathetic smile straight from the heart; all, in fact, that blended in his aspect the strong and the lovable.

    Dr. Irvine's descent, on the mother's side, was from an old Highland family, the Stewarts of Garth, and in face he bore a strong resemblance to his famous uncle, General Stewart of Garth, author of Sketches of the Highlands, etc. etc. The ruined stronghold of the family still stands at the head of the Keltney Burn, some way from Aberfeldy, a grey, massive keep, isolated and impressive even in its decay. Dr. Irvine was also linked with the most romantic episode of Scottish history through his great-grandfather, Mr. Stewart of Kynachan, who followed Prince Charlie, and was imprisoned at Carlisle for his share in the uprising. I have heard Dr. Irvine relate how some friends managed to convey relief to the captive by sending a large snuff-box full of snuff, but so remarkably weighty that his great-grandfather, on investigation found at the bottom of it golden guineas with which he bribed his gaoler to loosen his chains so far as to allow of his lying down! He was subsequently released, and returned home with a new acquisition in a ‘viol de gamba,' which he had learnt to play in prison. The portrait of this ancestor hung in the dining-room at Craigatin (the house which Dr. Irvine built for himself at Pitlochry), along with a fine Raeburn of his grandfather and other interesting portraits, and one could not but feel in intercourse with him that he had inherited, not merely the memories, but much of the innermost life of a remarkable race. Besides his strong and distinctively Scottish qualities, there were in him ideals that came from an age more poetic than ours. The old world courtesy, so unfailing, the self-devotion to a cause, regardless of consequences (in his case the cause was the claims of his profession taken in the noblest sense), the loyalty to all who trusted him, the fatherly care for all who depended on him, the fine enthusiasm for principles and disregard of personal advancement, these attributes, which ought to be among the plainest signs of good descent, were the great attractions of his character. ‘Spirits are not finely touched but to fine issues,' and the influence of any such man during a long life of work can never be estimated, but it is not often that circumstances combine, as in this case, to develop the utmost resources of a rich nature.

    When Dr. Irvine first came to Pitlochry in 1833 the district was comparatively unknown and unvisited. Communication was slow and difficult in the absence of a railway or of roads like the present splendid highway. His responsibility as parish doctor extended over forty-five miles of country, much of it wild moorland only to be reached by rough, precipitous roads, almost impassable for weeks at a time in winter. This wide district he had to traverse on horseback, and often far beyond its bounds he was called for private practice or consultation. Single-handed he had to struggle with difficulties that would have dismayed a far stronger man than he was physically, but which in time only served to develop that high courage which is the groundwork of every virtue, the backbone of every principle. Little or no professional help was to be had, and often, in the early years of his practice, he was summoned to some distant farm or croft to fight a disease he had perhaps had no previous opportunity of studying. There, in the wilds, far from all resources, he had to rely on his own penetration and sagacity, with no efficient nursing, nothing on his side in the battle save the calm endurance of the children of toil and their faith in him. In a case of this kind he would leave minute directions for the nursing during the following day or two, foreseeing every contingency and knowing the impossibility of returning earlier; then would ride home, without rest maybe, to find an urgent summons in another direction. Utterly exhausted, he would perhaps fling himself down on the hearthrug for an hour or two of rest, then take a light meal and start off for another long ride. At such times he was hardly seen by his own family for days together. After some years, when he had prevailed upon other doctors to settle down at different outlying points of this extensive district, things became easier, but a life of continuous and unremitting toil was his until threescore and ten had been reached and passed.

    Imagine the power for good of a man of this stamp in his daily familiar intercourse with the people. Speaking their own Gaelic, familiar with their ways of thinking, he was trusted as few are ever trusted in this world, and this nobly earned trust enabled him to render services quite apart from his profession. He knew the daily lives, the needs, the hopes and fears of the people as if they had all been of his own family; he was the trusted friend, the helper in need of all who sought his aid.

    When he first began work in it, the country was still under the influence of old ideals and memories, still ignorant of King Demos and all his ways. Poor the people were, deplorably ‘narrow,' no doubt (according to modern notions), and wanting in the most elementary ideas of creature comfort, but in the main independent, reverent, holding fast by antiquated beliefs in righteous retribution and reward, and having a certain originality which is the portion of those who think their own thoughts and are in daily contact with the powers of Nature. The few books they possessed were really mastered; the art of conversation was valued and practised in a way that would shame some of the ‘highest circles’ and in every glen was to be found someone with a retentive memory to hand down the legends and songs and ballads of far-gone days. Gifts of song or story-telling were highly valued at the Ceilidh or friendly gathering of several families round one fireside during the long winter evenings, when the women brought their knitting, and spinning-wheels, the men busied themselves with creel-making and other handiwork,, while first one and then another kept up the ‘flow of soul' by music or recitation.

    From Dr. Irvine's strong, vivid memory and his picturesque phraseology what a book of reminiscenses might have been produced! But he never could find time to write down any notes during his busy life, and when the leisure came with advancing years, he was too tired! Speaking one day of the changes that had gradually come about in the country within his own recollection, he gave the following facts: ‘My recollections,' he said, ‘are of the primitive times, which were times of starvation. I remember, at a certain meeting of the Turnpike Trustees, there were two old men present, one a guest, the other a treasurer of the Trust. The former mentioned that in bringing up meal for the supply of the country (before 1810) only one boll of meal could be carried at a time in a cart because of the badness of the roads. The other man said, ‘If your memory had carried you further back, you'd have remembered when no cart could come up; when one man led a horse or pony which had six or eight others tied together behind each with a sack of meal on his back, and only thus could they get the meal up into the country.’ The population was too large for the produce of the country. When I came here in 1833 the population of Moulin parish was 2,300; now, in 1891, it is about 2000, notwithstanding the growth of Pitlochry. The meal always ran done before the end of the season while the people were at the shielings. The time spent at the shielings was between sowing their crop (in May) until they returned to reap late in autumn. An old woman in my time remembered that there was often only enough meal remaining to take to the shieling to feed the baby of the house, and the others fed on salt meat and kippered salmon (so abundant in the rivers, which were not preserved) and milk; the milk kept them from dying of scurvy. Potatoes were not then largely used, in fact were scarcely known. Near the end of the last century they began to grow potatoes, and from that time food was more abundant, and the ravages of scurvy were stayed.

    ‘The people were very active, but not very powerful; they have become, in my observation, a finer race physically, but I don't think more talented. I don't think the mixing with the Saxon has improved their intellect, but it has improved them in two ways: First, in regard to bodily size and strength; second, the Saxon prudence has controlled the Celtic impetuosity. Want of steadiness of purpose characterises the Celt. . . . I have known so many young fellows who got on well, and showed marked ability in a certain line; but then made a dash at something they did not know, failed, lost heart, and were ruined.'

    Dr. Irvine here alludes to the native cleverness of the Highlanders, and he used to tell many stories illustrative of their ingenuity and imagina-tion. For instance, the story of a ghillie on one of the Perthshire shootings who was very enthusiastic about the Jacobite rising, and whose forefathers had taken an active part in it. He was being badgered by the ‘Sassenach' shooting tenants, and had endured hearing the campaign and all who took part in it held up to ridicule for some time. At last he said quietly to one of the gentlemen who were standing on a piece of rising ground, ‘Would you be so kind, sir, as to step down from that knowe?' ‘Why?' was the query; ‘what do you mean?' ‘I think, sir, it will be best if you will be stepping down from that knowe; for it is a very dangerous place; people will not be able to speak the truth while they are standing there.' That certainly was the retort courteous!

    Many a man, finding himself so much isolated as Dr. Irvine was in the early days of his practice, would have sunk down into a mere jog-trot existence, and never been heard of beyond the bounds of his own district. He, on the contrary, kept pace with the times by systematic reading, and kept in touch with the great world through his warm friendships. Pitlochry, though comparatively unknown as a health resort forty or fifty years ago, was yet frequented by some select spirits, men of science or of power in some line who resorted to it for summer quarters. In this way Dr. Irvine became acquainted with some of his warmest friends. Among them were Dr. John Brown, Principal Forbes, Norman Macleod, and many others long since passed away: friends who afforded him the stimulus of a society of pure intellect and heart, of plain living and high thinking such as mere outward prosperity and so-called ‘advantages' cannot always command. The reputation of his skill as a doctor induced many invalids to adventure themselves thus far in the Highlands, and by degrees the value of Pitlochry air, and the charms of its surroundings, became generally known. Few perhaps realise how much of the present prosperity of the place is due to the steadfast labours and high personal attainments of one man, and herein is the saying true ‘One soweth and another reapeth.' His unaffected simplicity and naturalness of character prevented him from estimating or understanding the extent of his power and influence, and in fact, from his own point of view, his life was chiefly remarkable for the kindness and goodness of his numerous friends, and the many blessings bestowed on him by Heaven. He took little account of the lives saved and the homes blessed by his skill and sympathy.

    Dr. Irvine was the son of a Highland minister well known in his day, and a brother of the still well-remembered Dr. Irvine, minister of Blair-Athole. He was himself a devoted adherent of the Church of Scotland, and, in his last years, when released from pressing professional claims, he became an elder, in order, as he said, ‘to be still of some little use’ Many will long remember the frail, venerable form, Sunday by Sunday, passing down the Parish Church with the collecting-bag, and will recall the kindly gleam that shot from time to time from his eyes, softened by time and trouble.

    And now that he has passed away from the place that knew him so long, it seems to have lost its animating and unifying spirit, and to be resolved into more prosaic elements. But he was weary, and longed for rest. His work was done, and, to such a man, what is life without work? - a lingering death! The last few years of his life had been marked by severe trials, and in the early part of 1893 came the death of his wife, which left him for the first time face to face with loneliness. This supreme trial he met with Christian fortitude and resignation, but his strength and life ebbed away, and ‘to depart in peace' became thenceforth his one desire and prayer. Home for him meant no longer his beloved Vale of Athole, nor even the well-known house by the banks of the Tummel, but the Father's house of many mansions - the ‘Land o' the Leal'